Today is Remembrance Day in Canada. It is a day that is marked by the wearing of red poppies, by school assemblies, by the moment of silence observed by many workplaces, including the TTC here in Toronto. It is a day of parades, and it is the day we mark to make a point to thank war veterans for fighting for “our freedom”. It is also a day that is considered a holiday for banks and other government institutions – I guess so that their employees can have enough time to get to these ceremonies and have adequate time for remembrance, which is undoubtedly what they will be doing today. But I digress…
To me, this day is a perfect example of what Benedict Anderson calls “nation building”. In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism he tackles the question of The Nation. There is nothing inherent in this piece of land I live on that makes Canada a separate country, there are no physical lines separating it from the USA for example, and yet even in Southwestern Ontario, right at the border of the USA, Canadians fight to maintain their own identity and are insulted if anyone even hints at them being a Yankee.
I won’t go into all of the theories and recipe-like ideas Anderson presents regarding what makes a Nation, and what makes its citizens loyal to it, but I will touch on his opening remarks about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There is one in Ottawa and, guess what? It is part of the National War Memorial where, arguably, the most important Canadian Remembrance Day ceremony will take place today. Anderson writes:
No more arresting emblems of the modern culture of nationalism exist than cenotaphs and tombs of Unknown Soldiers. The public ceremonial reverence accorded these monuments precisely because they are either deliberately empty or no one knows who lies inside them, has no true precedents in earlier times. To feel the force of this modernity one has only to imagine the general reaction to the busy-body who ‘discovered’ the Unknown Soldier’s name or insisted on filling the cenotaph with some real bones. Sacrilege of a strange, contemporary kind! Yet void as these tombs are of identifiable mortal remains or immortal souls, they are nonetheless saturated with ghostly national imaginings. (This is why so many different nations have such tombs without feeling any need to specify the nationality of their absent occupants. What else could they be but Germans, Americans, Argentinians. . .?)
The cultural significance of such monuments becomes even clearer if one tries to imagine, say, a Tomb of the Unknown Marxist or a cenotaph for fallen Liberals. Is a sense of absurdity avoidable? The reason is that neither Marxism nor Liberalism are much concerned with death and immortality. If the nationalist imagining is so concerned, this suggests a strong affinity with religious imaginings. As this affinity is by no means fortuitous, it may be useful to begin a consideration of the cultural roots of nationalism with death, as the last of a whole gamut of fatalities.
There really is something to this idea of Nationalism and death being closely related. A soldier enlisting in the army for example, does it to fight for his country, not because he simply sees the war as something he would like to be involved in. There is no “Either side works for me” check box on the recruitment form. But are we supposed to think that dying for one’s country is the ultimate sacrifice of a passionate citizen? Is a soldier that goes off to war and dies at the age of 21 more worthy of having our respect than a civil servant who stayed at home and worked to make local communities a better place for, say, 40 years of his life?
I don’t know if it is one or the other but there is definitely an absurdity to Remembrance Day ceremonies and symbols that I only really started to grasp when I was in my 20s. And it just gets weirder and weirder every year…